4. NZDF 'puppet' officer leaves Timor-Leste

News of an New Zealand military officer's suspension made headlines in some Timor-Leste media. Photo: Supplied.

The New Zealand military officer who called the new Timor-Leste prime minister a “puppet” in an email has been sent home from his posting in the country.

The NZ Defence Force (NZDF) says Wing Commander Kerry McKee, who accidentally shared an email with a mailing list used by thousands, remains employed by the military as it carries out an investigation into the incident.

This week, Newsroom revealed McKee had been suspended from his role as a strategic advisor to the Timor-Leste Defence Force, after his email on the country’s political and military machinations was published.

In the email, McKee said newly appointed Timor-Leste president Taur Matan Ruak was “merely a puppet” who had been appointed as part of politicking by revolutionary hero Xanana Gusmao.

Outlining differences between the pair which were “sure to cause friction”, he also discussed tensions between the new government and the military, saying a coup was unlikely “but not beyond the realm of possibility.”

The NZDF confirmed McKee’s suspension earlier in the week, but on Wednesday a spokesman told Newsroom his appointment in Timor-Leste had ended.

He was returning to New Zealand and would remain employed by the NZDF while it carried out a review into the circumstances regarding the email’s publication.

On Tuesday, Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters said the New Zealand embassy in Timor-Leste had passed on an apology for the remarks, which were the result of "a terrible mistake".

"We all do that, we all hit the wrong button every now and again, he's not the only one who has."

History of foreign interference

News of McKee’s suspension was front-page news in the Timor Post on Wednesday morning.

Charles Scheiner, a researcher at Timor-Leste NGO La’o Hamutuk, said most media had paid little attention to the remarks, which he believed were “not a big deal”.

Scheiner said McKee was not a big player among the many foreign advisers based in Timor-Leste, while there were many “rumours...unguarded comments and unfounded opinions” about the formation of the new Government.

“I think that’s [accidental emails] happened often enough that people don’t take those things that seriously, and the people who are more sophisticated understand that in every organisation there’s internal discussions that are different to what you say in public because they all do it.”

However, the issue was sensitive given the long history of foreign interference in Timor-Leste’s political affairs.

“There’s a sensitivity to that, and so I can understand why the Government of New Zealand feels like they need to take some action in response to the concern.”

While Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste was “fraught with historical baggage”, Scheiner said New Zealand’s was more positive, pointing to a previous project to distribute bicycles to community police.

“That’s totally opposite to what Australia or the UN were doing where it was about military or police and heavy weapons and enforcing the law.”

McKee’s analysis was an oversimplification of the situation in Timor-Leste, given the relationships between key players that spanned decades, Scheiner said.

A more pressing issue for the country was improving its economic sustainability and diversification of industry before its oil reserves ran out.